[Mr Campbell, in his very
able preface to his interesting collection of popular Highland Tales,
says, p. 20:—"Dr Macleod, the best of living Gaelic scholars, printed
one old tale somewhat altered with a moral added in his 'Leabhar nan
Cnoc,' in 1834; but even his efforts to preserve and use this lore were
unsuccessful;" and at p. 28 the same accomplished writer says:—"The old
spirit of popular romance is surely not an evil spirit to be exorcised,
but rather a good genius to be controlled and directed. Surely stories
in which a mothers blessing, well earned, leads to success; in which the
poor rise to be princes, and the weak and courageous overcome giants, in
which wisdom excels brute force—surely even such frivolities as these
are better pastime than a solitary whisky bottle, or sleep in grim
The following tale is
that referred to in the above words. It is not an actual transcript of
any individual tale, but it embodies "the spirit of romance," and
presents an example of the general tone and teaching of the old Highland
tale, most faithfully and vividly. In Gaelic it possesses all the
freshness and gracefulness which the late Dr Macleod's intimate
knowledge of the Highland character, or rather his own thoroughly Celtic
heart and imagination, along with complete mastery of the language,
enabled him to give. Very much of its life-like character is necessarily
lost in the translation into a foreign tongue; but imperfect as it is,
it may prove interesting to the thinking English reader, as a specimen
of the style of teaching which served to nourish and strengthen among
the Highlanders those qualities which, even their enemies being judges,
they possessed in a very eminent degree—reverence for parents,
hospitality, fidelity, and fearlessness.]
IN the olden time, there
lived at the back of Beinn nan Sian, a goat-herd, named Gorla of the
Flocks, who had three sons and one daughter. The herding of the kids was
intrusted to her, the Darling of the Golden Hair. On one of the days
when she was on the breast of the hill herding the kids, a fleecy wreath
of mist, white as the snow one night old, twined round the shoulder of
the hill, encircled the solitary darling, and she was seen no more.
At the end of a year and
a day, Ardan, the eldest son of the herdsman spoke, saying:-
"A year past to-day, my
sister, the Darling of the Golden Hair, departed, and it is a vow and a
word to me that I will not rest, or stay, by night or by day, until I
trace her out, or share her lot."
"If thou hast so vowed,
my son," says the father, "I will not hinder thee; but it would have
been becoming, ere the word had gone fortis from thy mouth, to have
asked thy father's consent. Arise, wife; prepare a cake for thy eldest
son. He is going on a long journey."
His mother arose, and
baked two cakes, a large and a small one.
"Now, my son," says she,
"whether wilt thou have the large cake with thy mother's displeasure for
going away without leave, or the small one with her blessing?"
"Mine be the large cake,"
said he, "and keep the small one with thy blessing for those who prefer
He departed, and in the
winking of an eye he was out of sight of his father's house. He plashed
through every poo1, strode over every knoll. He travelled swiftly
without sparing of limb, or thew, or sinew. He would catch the swift
March wind which was before; but the swift March wind which was after
him could not catch him. At length hunger seized him. He sat on a gray
stone to eat the large cake, and the black raven of the wilderness sat
on a snout of rock above him.
"A bit, a bit for me, Son
of Gorla of the Flocks," says the raven.
"Nor bit, nor sup shalt
thou have from me, thou ugly, black, grim-eyed beast. It is little
enough for myself," says the Son of Gorla.
When this was over the
edge of his chest, he again stretched his limbs. The swift March wind
before him he would catch, but the swift March wind after him could not
catch him. The moss shook as he drew near it. The dew fell off the
branchy brown heath. The moor-cock flew to his most distant retreat. The
evening was begining to darken. The black gloomy clouds of night were
coming, and the soft silken clouds of day were departing. The little
bright-coloured birds were seeking rest, at the foot of each bush, or in
the top of each branch, amid the most sheltered nooks which they could
find ; but not so was the Son of Gorla.
At length he saw afar off
a little house of light; but though it was a long way off, he was not
long, in reaching it. When he entered, lie saw a powerful-looking,
stout, old gray-headed man stretched on a long bench on one side of the
fire, and on the other a handsome maiden combing her waving tresses of
youngster," says the old man. "Thou art welcome: often has my bright
lamp attracted the traveller of the mountains. Come forward. Warmth, and
shelter, and whatever comfort is in the dwelling on the hill are thine.
Sit down, and, if it be thy pleasure, let thy news be heard."
"I am a fellow in search
of employment," says the herdsman's eldest son. "The bright lamp of thy
dwelling drew me to seek warmth and shelter for the night"
"If thou remain with me
for a twelvemonth to herd my three dun hornless cows thou 'it receive
thy reward, and shalt have no reason to complain."
"I would not so advise
him," says the maiden.
"Advice unsought was
never esteemed," says the Son of Gorla. "I accept thine offer, sir: in
the dawn of the morning I am thy servant."
Before the belling of the
deer in the forest the Maiden of the Golden Hair and the Silver Comb
milked the three dun hornless cows. "There they are to thee," says the
old man; "take charge of them, follow them, do not turn or hinder them.
They will seek their own pasture; allow them to travel as they choose ;
keep thou behind them, and whatever comes in thy way do not part with
them. Let thine eye be on them, on them alone: and whatever else thou
seest or hearest, give not an eye to it. This is thy duty; be faithful,
be diligent, and trust my word; thy diligence shall not be without
reward." He went in charge of the cattle, but he was not long away when
he saw a golden cock and a silver hen running on the ground before him.
He chased them: but though every now and then they were almost in his
grasp, it defied him to lay hold of them. He returned from the vain
pursuit, reached the place where the three dun cows were feeding, and
began again to herd them; but he was not long after them when he saw a
wand of gold, and a wand of silver, twisting and turning on the plain
before him, and he immediately set off after therm. "It cannot be but
that these are easier to catch than were the birds which deceived me,"
he said; but though he chased them still, he could not catch them. He
betook himself again to the herding, and saw a grove of trees on which
brew every kind of fruit that he had ever seen, and twelve kinds which
he had never seen. He began to fill himself with the fruits. The dun
cows set their faces homewards, and he followed them.
The Maid of the Golden
Hair milked them; but instead of milk there came only a thin watery
ooze. The old man understood how the case stood.
"False and faithless
fellow," said he, " thou hast broken thy promise." He raised his magic
club, struck the young man, and made a stone pillar of him, which stood
three days and three years in the dwelling of the hill as a memorial of
breaking the word and covenant of engagement.
When another day and
another year had passed, red Ruais, Gorla's second son, said, "There are
two days and two years since my lovely sister departed, and a day and a
year since my big brother went off. 'Tis a vow and a word to me to go in
search of them, and to share their lot." Like as it happened to the
elder brother it happened in every respect to the second, and a stone
pillar he is in the end of the dwelling on the hill, as a memorial of
falsehood and failure in covenant.
A year and a day after
this, the youngest son, brown-haired, pleasant Covan, spoke :—
"There are now three days
and three years since we lost my beautiful sister. My beloved brothers
have gone in search of her. Now, father, if it please thee, permit me to
go after them, and to share their lot, and -let not my mother prevent
me. I pray for your consent. Do not refuse me."
"My consent and my
blessing thou shalt have, Covan; and thy mother will not hinder thee."
"Shall I," said the
mother, "prepare the large cake without my blessing, or the small cake,
with the wish of my heart, and the yearning of my soul?"
"Thy blessing, mother,
give thou unto me, and much or little as may be given along with it, I
am content. The possession of the whole world would be a poor
inheritance with thy curse upon it. A mother's blessing 'tis I who will
Brown-haired Covan, the
Son of Gorla, departed, and as his father and mother were disappearing
in the mist, his heart was full. He travelled with speed; he reached the
wood of roes. He sat under a tree to eat of the cake which his gentle
mother had baked for him.
"A bit, a bit for me,"
says the black raven of the wilderness. "Covan, give me a bit, for I am
"Thou 'it get a bit, poor
bird," says Covan. "It is likely thou art more needful than I. It will
suffice for us both. There is a mother's blessing along with it."
He arose and went on his
way. He took shelter with the old man, and went to herd the three dun
cows. He saw the golden cock and the silver hen, but he turned away his
eyes; he followed the cattle. He saw the wand of gold and the wand of
silver; but he remembered his promise, and did not go after them. He
reached the grove, and saw the fruit that was so fair to the eye; but he
did not taste of it. The three dun cows passed the wood. They reached a
wide moor where the heather was burning. They went towards it. The
flames were spreading, threatening to consume them all; but the cows
entered into the midst of them. He did not attempt to prevent them, for
such was his promise. He followed them through the fire, and not one of
the hairs of his head was singed. He saw after this a large river which
was swollen with the flood of the mountains. Across it went the dun
cows, after them fearlessly went Covan. A short while after this, on a
green plain was seen a beautiful house of worship, sheltered from the
wind, brightened by the sun, from which was heard the melody of sweet
songs and of holy hymns. The cattle lay down on the ground, and
brown-haired Covan went in to hear the tidings of good. He was not long
listening to the message of gladness, when there rushed in a light youth
with raised look and panting breath to tell him that the dun cows were
in the corn-field, and to order him to drive them out.
"Depart from me," says
Covan. "It were easier for you, my good fellow, to drive them out
yourself, than to run thus with panting breath to tell me. I will listen
to the pleasant words."
A very short time after
this the same youth came back, excitement and wildness in his eye, his
"Out, out, Son of Gorla
of the Flocks, our dogs are chasing thy cows. If thou be not out
immediately thou shalt not get another sight of them."
"Away, good fellow," said
brown-haired Covan. "It were easier for thee to stop thy dogs than to
come thus panting to tell the tale to me."
When the worship was
over, brown-haired Covan went out, and found the three dun cows reposing
in the very place where he had left them. They rose, went on their
journey homewards, and Covan followed them. He had not gone far when he
carne to a plain so bare that he could see the smallest pin on the very
ground, and he noticed a mare with a young frisking foal pasturing
there, both, as fat as the seal of the great ocean. "This is wonderful,"
says brown-haired Covan. Very shortly after this he saw another plain,
with rich abundant grass, where were a mare and a foal so very lean that
a shoemaker's awl would not stand in their backs. After this was seen a
fresh-water lake, to the upper end of which was travelling a numerous
band of youths, bright and buoyant, fair and happy. They were going with
joyful songs to the land of the Sun, to dwell under the shade of trees
whose leaves were most fragrant He heard the murmur of the brooks that
flowed in the land of the Sun—the songs of the birds—the melody of
strings which he knew not, and of musical instruments of which he had
never heard. He perceived other bands of miserable persons, going to the
lower end of the lake—to the land of Darkness. Horrible was the scream
that they raised, woful was the sad wringing of their hands. Mist and
dark clouds were over the land to which they were travelling, and Covan
heard the muttering of thunder. "This is truly wonderful," he said; but
he followed the three dun cows.
The night now threatened
to be stormy, and he knew not of house or of shelter where to pass it.
But there met him the Dog of Maol-vnor, and no sooner met, than this
liberal giver of food invited him, not churlishly or grudgingly, but
hospitably and heartily, to lay aside three-thirds of his weariness, and
to pass the whole night with him. He was well and carefully tended by
the Dog of Maol Mor in a warm cave, where no water from above or below
came near them,—if this would suffice him with sweet flesh of lamb, and
of kid, without stint, or scant, and in the morning abundance for the
"Now farewell to thee,
Covan," says his host "Success to thee; wherever thou goest may
happiness be always thy companion. I offered hospitality, and thou didst
not spurn it. Thou didst pleasantly and cheerfully accept what I
offered; thou didst pass the night in my cave; thou didst trust in me;
thou hast made fast my friendship, and thou shalt not be deceived. Now
attend to my words: if ever difficulty or danger overtake thee, whenever
speed of foot and resolute action may deliver thee, think of the Dog of
1lfaol-mor, wish for him, and I will be by thy side."
He met with the like
friendship and liberality on the following night from the renowned giver
of food, the active, far-travelling black raven of Corrinan-creag, on
whom sleep never settled, nor sun ever rose, until he had provided what
was enough for himself and for him who came and went. Short-hopping,
wing-clapping, he led the way for Covan through the goats' track, to a
hollow under a dry snout of rock, where he asked him to lay aside
three-thirds of his weariness, and to pass the whole night with him. He
was well cared for that night, if mutton and venison would suffice; and
on going away in the morning, he said to him, "Covan, son of Gorla of
the Flocks, take with thee what thou needest. The stranger's portion I
never missed, and remember my words. If ever you happen to be in peril
or hardship, where a strong wring, and courage which fails riot, will
avail thee, remember me. Warm is thy breast, kind is thine eye. Thou
didst confide in me; thou bast ere this fed the black raven of the
wilderness. I am thy friend—trust in me."
On the third night he met
with companionship and hospitality as good from the Doran-dour, the
sharp-eyed, the skilful, active seeker, who would not be without food
for man or boy while it was to be found either on sea or land. Though in
his den were heard the mewing of wild cats and the snarling of badgers,
he led Covan—without awe, or fear, or starting—firmly, steadily,
straightly to the mouth of a cairn, where he asked him to lay aside
three-thirds of his weariness, and to pass the whole night with him.
Well was he entertained that night by Doran-done of the stream—the
constant traveller—if fish of every kind better than another would
suffice, and a bed—dry, comfortable, and soft—of the cast-wave of the
highest spring-tide, and of the dilse of the farthest out shore.
"Rest for the night,
Covan," said he. "Thou art most heartily welcome. Sleep soundly, the
Doran-done is a wakeful guard."
When day came Doran
escorted Covan for a part of the way.
"Farewell, Covan," said
he. "Thou hast made me thy friend; and if ever difficulty or danger
overtake thee, in which he who can swim the stream and dive under the
wave will avail thee, think of me,—I will be at thy side."
Covan went forward and
found the three dun cows in the hollow where he had left them, and by
the close of that same evening he and they reached the dwelling on the
hill safe and sound. Welcome and kindness awaited him in the house when
he entered, and he was entertained without stint or grudge. The aged man
asked how it had fared with him since his departure, and lie began to
declare it. He praised him for not having meddled with anything which he
had seen until he reached the house of the sweet hymns, because those
were only a vain show to deceive him.
"I will, after this, open
to thee the mystery of the matter, and explain the meaning of the sights
which caused thy great wonder," says the old man. "Meantime, ask thy
reward, and thou shalt have it."
"That will not be heavy
on thee, I hope," says Covan, "and it will be abundant for me. Restore
to me in life and health—as they were when they left my father's
house—my beloved sister and brothers, and piece of gold or coin of
silver Covan wishes not."
"High is thy demand,
young man," said the aged. "There are difficulties between thee' and thy
request above what thou canst surmount."
"Name them," says Covan,
"and let me encounter them as I best may."
"Hearken, then. In that
lofty mountain there is a fleet roe of slenderest limb. Her like there
is not. White-footed, side-spotted she is, and her antlers like the
antlers of the deer. On the beautiful lake near the land of the Sun,
there is a duck surpassing every duck—the green duck of the golden neck.
In the dark, pool of Corgi-bus there is a salmon white-bellied,
red-gilled, and his side like the silver of purest hue. So, bring home
hither the spotted white-footed roe of the mountain, the beautiful duck
of the golden neck, and the salmon which can be distinguished from every
salmon,—then will I tell thee of the sister and brothers of thy love."
Off went brown-haired
Covan. The Maid of the Golden Hair and the Silver Comb followed him.
"Take courage, Covan,"
says she; "thou bast the blessing of thy mother and the blessing of the
poor. Thou hast stood to thy promise; thou hast rendered honour to the
house of sweet hymns. Go, and remember my parting words. Never despair."
He sought the mountain;
the roe was seen—her like was not on the mountain; but when he was on
one summit the roe was on another, and it was as well for him to try to
catch the restless clouds of the sky. He was on the point of despair
when he remembered the words of the Maid of the Golden Hair: "Oh, that I
now had the fleet-footed Dog of Maol-mor," said he. He no sooner spoke
the word than the good dog was by his side, and after taking a turn or
two around the hill, he laid the spotted roe of the mountain at his
Covan now betook himself
to the lake, and saw the green duck of the golden neck flying above him.
"Oh, that now I had the black raven of the wilderness, swiftest of wing,
and sharpest of eye," says lie. No sooner had he spoken thus, than lie
saw the black raven of the wilderness approaching the lake, and quickly
he left the green duck of the golden neck by his side.
Then he reached the dark
deep pool, and saw the silvery, beautiful salmon, swimming from bank to
bank. "Oh, that I now had the Doran-dorm that swims the streams and
dives under the wave," says Covan. In the winking of an eye, who was
sitting on the banks of the river, but Doran-Donn? He looked in Covan's
face with kindness—he quickly went out of sight, and from the dark deep
pool he took the white-bellied salmon of brightest hue and laid it at
his feet. Covan now turned homewards, and left the roe, the duck, and
the salmon on the threshold of the dwelling on the hill.
"Success and gladness be
with thee," said the aged man. "He never put his shoulder to it who did
not throw the difficulty over. Come in, Covan; and when the Maid of the
Golden Hair has milked the three dun cows, I will open the mystery of
the matter to thee, and we will draw wisdom from the history, and the
journey of Covan."
"Thou didst not leave the
house of thy father and of thy mother without their consent : the
blessing of father and mother was with thee, Covan. Thou didst not
refuse a morsel to the hungry in his need : the blessing of the poor was
with thee, Covan. Thou didst make an engagement, thou didst promise, and
didst fulfil; and the reward of the true is with thee. Thou didst see
the golden cock and the silver hen—the glamour which gold and silver
cast on the sight: thou didst remember thy promise, and didst walk in
the path of duty. Happiness attended thee, Covan. The tempter tried thee
again with the wand of gold, and the wand of silver which appeared
easier to grasp. Thou didst remember thy promise and didst follow the
cattle. When he failed to lead thee astray by gold and silver, he tried
to deceive thee with the fair fruit of the grove. He set before thee
every fruit ever seen by thee, and twelve which had not been seen, but
thou didst turn away from them. He then tried thy courage by means of
the fire and the flood; but thou didst pass through them on the path of
duty, and didst find that they were as nothing. Thou didst hear the
voice of the holy hymns, and the sound of the sweet songs. Thou didst go
in, doing well. But even thither the tempter followed thee. Good was thy
answer to him. 'I will listen to the truth.' Thou didst see the bare
pasture with the high-bounding steed and the frisking foal, glad in the
midst of it Thus often, Covan, is it in the world. There is scarcity in
the house of hospitality; but peace, gladness, and increase are along
with it. Thou didst see the abundant pasture, and every four-footed
creature on it near dying from leanness. Thus, in the world, is the
house of the penurious churl. There is abundance in it; but he has not
the heart to use it; there is want in the midst of plenty. There is a
worm gnawing every root, and every flower is withered. Thou didst see
the beautiful lake, and didst hear the glad notes of the happy bands who
were travelling to the land of the Sun. These are they who attended to
my counsel, and were wise in their day. Thou didst hear the painful
wailing of those who were going to the land of Darkness. These were the
people without understanding or wisdom, without truth or faithfulness,
who made light of every warning. and now they lament miserably. Thou
didst not despise the kindness or hospitality of the poor. Thou
receivedst frankly what was offered thee in friend ship. Thou didst not
shame the needy. Thus thou didst bind their attachment to thee. Thou
didst stand to thy promise. Thou didst follow the cattle. Thou hast
earned thy reward. I trusted to thy courage. Difficulties did not deter
thee. Putting thy shoulder to them, thou didst overcome them. Thou didst
never despair. Thou didst also find that the Dog of Mao-mor, the Black
Raven of the Wilderness, and the Brown Doran of the Stream, were not
"And now, Covan, Son of
Gorla of the Flocks, hearken to me: `Restore to me,' thou sayest, 'my
beautiful sister and beloved brothers, whom thou hast under the power of
witchcraft!' What is witchcraft, Covan? The false contrivance of the
deceiver—the vain excuse of the coward—the bugbear of fools—the terror
of the faint-hearted—what never was, is, nor will be. Against the
dutiful and the upright there is neither witchcraft nor wile. Thy
sister, the Darling of the Golden Hair, thou shalt get home with thee;
but thy brothers, though they are alive, laziness and unfaithfulness
have made wanderers without home or friend. Go thou to thy father's
house, Covan, and treasure in thy heart what thou hast seen and heard."
"And who art thou that
addressest me?" said Covan.
"I am the Spirit of Eld--the
Voice of Age," says the old man. "Fare thee well, Covan. The blessing of
the aged go ever with thee."